By Margy Rochlin
"He wants down," says Hilary Swank, while gamely trying to feed a 9-week-old lion cub that keeps rejecting Swank's milk-filled baby bottle and emitting a low growl that sounds like a creaking gate. In an attempt to distract him, the animal wrangler, a petite woman in blue jeans, leaps about making jungle noises -- "kikikikiki!" -- while waving a widemouthed monkey hand puppet into the air. The cub -- part of the Ladies' Home Journal photo shoot taking place in a Los Angeles warehouse -- squirms out of her arms and jumps to the ground. Swank, a well-documented animal lover (her preferred travel companions are corgi-Jack Russell terrier Karoo, Labrador retriever German shepherd mix Lucky, and parrots Angel and Seuss), will later recount how time and patience ultimately helped her charm her exotic shoot mates. "Finally he just put his head on my shoulder like, okay," says Swank, with exaggerated resignation in her voice. "It was so much fun!"
As we settle in for a chat during a lunch break, Swank recalls how her enduring affection for creatures great and small took a different form in 2001, when she joined a group of volunteers who rescued pets in New York City left behind by owners who hastily exited their World Trade Center-area apartments on September 11. For four long days Swank made her way up dozens of flights of stairs through dusty buildings without light or working elevators. "Surreal" is how she described entering empty, windowless rooms to find cats, dogs, and turtles suffering from varying degrees of hunger, dehydration, and stress. "People couldn't get back to their apartments, so we'd go in and get their animals out." Whenever she could, Swank was there to witness the happy reunions. "It was amazing," she says of watching the evacuees reach for their beloved companions. "They were grasping at any sense of the things they loved and reminded you of what was important in life. It was like, 'My animal!'"